Report of a Public Hanging

Vali Khalili

Illustration by Gianna Meola

As the projecting arm of the crane moves higher, as the white rope around Ali’s neck grows tighter and tighter and his body is suspended between the sky and the earth, perhaps the only thing the masked driver of the crane can think about is the water bottle he took from his car a few minutes ago so that Ali could quench his thirst in the final moments of his life. With his hands tied behind his back, with a hanging rope around his neck, Ali, or Ali Choureh (Sloppy Ali) as his neighborhood friends called him, had asked for water a few seconds before his execution; a few moments later, an officer held a plastic bottle in front of his mouth to grant him one last wish before death.

Two or three meters away, at another gallows, Alireza, known to his friends as Alireza Kharchang (Alireza the Crab), puts his head on the shoulder of the masked officer in charge of his execution. The officer is the only person to accompany Alireza in the final moments of his life. Tears cover his round face.

Ali and Alireza, 22 and 24, were hanged on Sunday [January 20, 2013], a few minutes before sunrise, while the skies were still dark, amidst the cries of their many friends who had gathered to see them one last time and the shrieks of a few women in the audience. Ropes tied around their necks, the two men lost their lives in the blink of an eye, without a struggle. Their bodies were left hanging from the ropes for several minutes.

This was the end of a case that began fifty days before that, on December 1, 2012, when two young men met at a small coffeehouse on 17 Shahrivar Street, made plans to commit a robbery with the help of two other friends (Mehrdad and Milad), and then carried out their scheme only a few hours later in Jamal Alley on Kheradmand Jonoubi Street. After his arrest, Alireza tried to explain to Aseman magazine why they committed the crime. “We were sitting in the coffeehouse and I wasn’t in the best of moods. My mother was sick and had to have surgery, but the hospital demanded that we make the payment prior to the surgery. Sitting in front of me, Mehrdad was also in need of money to pay off some debts, so that his creditor would close the legal case against him, and he too began to talk about his problems; Ali Choureh joined us in the middle of our conversation and we decided to carry out a few thefts and make some money. Mehrdad called his brother Milad, we got hold of a motorcycle and a cutlass and began touring the streets to find targets.”

Around two in the afternoon, Alireza and his friends decide to target a young man named Javad, an accountant with a pharmaceutical distribution company, who had just walked out of the Saman Bank on Karim Khan Street. They follow him to his workplace and before Javad rings the door of the building in Jamal Alley, they surround him on motorcycles and steal his documents and wallet, which contained 70,000 tomans (around $20), making Alireza and each of his friends’ share around 15,000 tomans (around $4 each). They left the scene of the crime on their motorcycles. Surveillance cameras above the building recorded the whole incident, and soon the thieves’ images were published on news agency websites and aired on national television.

After all the media attention, this sorry case begins a new phase. After a meeting with his officials, the head of the judiciary called the crime moharebeh (war against God), which is punishable by execution.

Soon afterwards, following several special operations targeting the young men, the police arrested Alireza, 22, and Ali, 24, who had carried out the theft by threatening Javad with knives, as well as Milad, 22, and Mehrdad, 20, who had ridden the motorcycles. Following the broadcast of the video of the theft and the heightened attention on the case that led to special operations against the young men, everything went very quickly—a case that would normally take several months to be investigated was sent to court in a week. It was judged in the Revolutionary Court, and the two prime suspects, Alireza and Ali, who had carried the knives, were sentenced to death by hanging, while Mehrdad and Milad, the two brothers riding the motorcycles, to ten years in prison, seventy-four lashes, and five years of labor in the provinces, verdicts that were approved by the Supreme Court a few days later. The hangings were carried out at dawn on Sunday in public at a location close to the crime scene. Ali and Alireza were executed even though Javad, the main plaintiff of the case who had been “mugged,” had asked to withdraw the charges against them, and for the judge to pardon the men.

The hangings took place on the northern side of Honarmandan (Artists) Park, close to the brick-layered buildings of Khaneh-ye Honarmandan (Artists House), a space consisting of several art galleries and theater houses. According to the monthly program, Hamlet and The Playhouse of Ghias ed-Din Ma’a al-Faregh were due to play. Because of the case, however, another play had been added to the program for five in the morning, a public hanging staged in the open space north of Honarmandan Park, with only one showtime.

On Saturday, preparations began for this last-minute performance. Metal scaffolding was set up on the northern side of the park, a few meters away from the chess hall and around ten meters from a tall wooden sculpture entitled Lantern, while banners were hung over scaffolding set up on Behshahr Street, reading, “Location for the public hanging of violent muggers and thieves” and “Kheradmand Neighborhood Council thanks the hardworking police force of Felestin 107 Police Station.” The rectangular cordoned-off space was set up for the hanging so that the onlookers could stand in the park and watch, while the cranes were positioned in Behshahr Street. Some ten officers in a police van and a Mercedes-Benz Elegance moved into position as the Special Forces squad designated to prepare for the execution of the hanging order. With the hanging hour getting closer, the number of police officers and cars increased. The spectators began to gather around 4 a.m., primarily sitting around on the park green and the benches. They later moved towards the scaffolding to find themselves a good spot, some even climbing trees to find a spot overlooking the stage for the execution.

Around midnight, two spotlights were set up to illuminate two orange-colored cranes, and thus light up the area for the hanging, as if it were a theater stage. The lights were surrounded by almost complete darkness. On the other side of the scaffolding, under the moon and spotlights, people awaited the arrival of Ali and Alireza. Most of the spectators were their acquaintances, friends, and neighborhood kids. They had gotten there from Shokufeh neighborhood on Pirouzi Street on their motorcycles, as is the tradition of the youth of the southern neighborhoods of the city. Two teenage boys from Shokufeh grabbed the two corners of a park bench and moved it closer to the scaffolding to secure themselves a better spot from which they could watch the hanging.

Among the onlookers, one could see only a handful of residents from the park neighborhood and adjoining streets, a small group that could easily be distinguished from Alireza and Ali’s friends and acquaintances by their different clothing. This public hanging in Honarmandan Park was not as crowded as those last year in Kaaj Square, Saadat Abad neighborhood, and Haft Hoze Square, Shahid Mahalati Street. Of the residents of the neighboring houses, the doors to some of whose houses open onto the scaffolding and the cranes, few demonstrated any interest in the hanging, and very few lights were on in the houses facing the park. Only a handful emerged at their windows and on rooftops to watch the execution of the two young thieves. The day after the execution, a young woman whose front door opens onto the park says, “When I got back from work in the evening, I was surprised to see the scaffolding. My mother explained that in the morning two people were going to be hung in front of our house. I am not much into news and had not heard anything about the incident. My father suffers a heart condition, and he was troubled. He asked: ‘Why in front of our house, there are so many other places, we don’t even know these kids, this is a calm neighborhood and everyone minds his own business.’”

The arms of the watch are at five-thirty. “One Two Three pff pff . . .” The rough voice of a man resounds through the loudspeakers arranged around the scaffolding, breaking the silence of the park and the surrounding streets. There are now some 400 people gathered for the execution. One of the police commanders, who has a large build, orders his officers, mostly young men between 19 and 23 who are waiting with their hands in their pockets, to stand guard around the scaffolding and close to the onlookers. They block the view of some, making them protest: “Dear officer, on your mother’s grave, move to the side! We can’t see anything like this.”

A few minutes later the sound of sirens and the red lights of police cars fill the rectangular space cleared for the hangings and the van carrying Ali and Alireza enters the designated area, coming to a stop two or three meters from the execution cranes. The sound of the Quran recitation coming over the loudspeakers fills the air. Stressed and worried, some of the spectators take deep puffs on their cigarettes and some hold their cell phones toward the crane and the van, waiting for Ali and Alireza to be brought out of the police car. A few minutes later, as the Quran recitation comes to an end and as the two young convicts are brought out of the van and positioned under the crane hooks and as the ropes are affixed to the cranes, screams and whimpers fill the air. Many of Alireza and Ali’s friends call out their names while women's screams can be heard, screams that many in the crowd believe belong to the convicts’ mothers and sisters who have come to say farewell to their loved ones. As the voices of the men from the convicts’ neighborhood grow louder, the police move closer to the scaffolding, hitting the metal bars with their batons, trying to calm the onlookers. Meanwhile the masked execution officers prepare everything for the hanging and throw two white ropes around Ali and Alireza’s necks. Ali asks for water and Alireza puts his completely shaved head on the shoulder of the officer standing next to him. A representative from the public prosecutor’s office reads the verdicts and orders the raising of the crane hooks and the carrying out of the execution so that the two young men’s struggle with death can begin, a struggle that does not last more than a few seconds.

Ali and Alireza’s bodies stay up on the gallows for eighteen minutes. Ali with his dark blue clothes, his back to the spectators, his face hidden from view, and Alireza looking up at the sky. A sky that gradually grows light and is filled with the orange hue of the rising sun. As dawn breaks and the audience grows smaller, the cranes’ hooks are brought down and the coroner’s ambulance drives closer to the cranes so that Ali and Alireza’s bodies can be put in body bags.

Around the scaffolding, some men begin collecting the equipment. A man rolls up the loudspeakers’ wires while another tries to drag the loudspeakers to a car and put them away in the trunk. As the body bags are put in the ambulance and the ambulance drives away, the police gradually disperse as well.

A few meters away from the scaffolding for the hanging stage, Honarmandan Park begins to have another life of its own. Music can be heard from around the little pool in the garden and a group of women and men stand in three rows to do their morning workout. A middle-aged man stands in the front, guiding the crowd to open and close their hands following his voice and movements: “One, two, three, one one, two, three, two, one, two, three, three . . .”

translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi

This piece was originally published on January 26, 2013, in Aseman magazine.